Thursday, October 02, 2014
"Half of a Yellow Sun": historical drama from the Nigerian Civil War provides a lesson in structured, layered storytelling (in a novel, in a screenplay)
“Half of a Yellow Sun” is an ambitious film, from the UK (2013), by Nigerian director Biyi Bandele, filmed on location in that country, set over several years of civil war in that country in the 1960s after it became a republic, particularly toward the end when the conflict concerned Biafra. It is based on a historical novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
The film, from Monterey Video, is ambitious, in the style of many films set in Africa made in the 80s, and is surprisingly little known, as it was passed up major companies (like Sony and TWC), which ought to have bene interested. (More recently Cinedigm has offered it for rental on YouTube for $3.99.)
It is timely for several reasons. First, Nigeria is in the news a lot these days, maybe for bad news. First, there was the anti-gay law, and then the terrorism in the north by Boko Haram. There have been issues with piracy near the coast and attacks on oil facilities by leftist groups (I got a direct email about this on Aug. 15, 2008, on my International Issues blog). Lately the Ebola epidemic has been in the news, although Nigeria has done a much better job of containing it than other African countries, given the help of Bill and Melinda Gates. Lagos is one of the world's very largest cities. Several Nigerian families attend a large downtown Washington DC church (First Baptist) that I frequent, and they always wear very colorful dress.
I do recall the coverage of Biafra in the news, about the time I was in the Army. I didn’t go to Vietnam, but it seemed like another area of “revolutionary” conflict, comparable to Nam, with many refugees and people reduced to nothing. There is a line about Biafra in the text of one of the “songs” in a choral composition that I sketched out mostly in 1972. I’ve talked about it on the “Drama” blog (Oct 2 and Sept 4, 2013).
In fact, the film has several black-and-white newsreel narratives about the course of the Nigerian Civil War, starting even with the Queen’s visit.
The other aspect of this film that is unique is the complexity and ingenuity of the novel on which it is based. This is a film that could be studied in high school social studies (as is “Hotel Rwanda”) or the novel could be assigned reading (like “Lord of the Flies”). In fact, I found a term paper (by Joke De Mey) written in Belgium on the novel here.
The story centers first on two twin sisters: Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika None Rose) whose romances track the conflict. Olanna is the mistress of a math professor Odebigbro (the very handsome Chiwetel Ejiofor) who has a houseboy Ugwu (John Boyega). Kainene loves a white British aspiring novelist Richard (Joseph Mawle) whose presence in Nigeria seems a bit self-indulgent. There’s a lot of detail in the BN page for the book (with a forum discussion) here or on Amazon Kainene, at one point, says “never behave as if your life belongs to a man.”
Ugwu provides a lot of the “omniscient” narration of Olanna’s descent into poverty, as war invades their university town and forces them to flee. Olanna had perhaps gambited her life of privilege with the relationship in the first place. Ugwu becomes the factual and interpretive historian, a writer in his own right, but then the character Richard aspires to write fiction himself. Having multiple characters provide narratives, with some of their own spin behind it, is a way for a book author to add details to a plot, and weave all the knowledge from various characters together into one powerful narrative, as if the reader or moviegoer could personally experience all of it. Here’s a good discussion of the characters in the book. The novel is also structured to be told out of sequence, in the order that the characters would learn of the events. I’ve done something similar with my own novel manuscript, “Angel’s Brother”.
The war scenes are quite shocking and graphic, including cold-blooded shootings at an airport and the sacking of villages.
The film Technicolor is quite garish, starting with the opening scenes of celebration. The music score (by Ben Onono and Paul Thomson) is brooding and schmaltzy.
The main link for the film (with more summary) is here (Monterrey or Cinedigm). The film showed at TIFF.
The DVD can be rented from Netflix and has many sound bites from the producer, director and actors.
Wikipedia attribution link for public domain picture of person in Biafran conflict in 1960s.